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E-learning at Boston College
classic education meets 21st-century technology

By Rita R. Owens / July 2005

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If you're a philosophy student at Boston College, your study of the ancients is powered by 21st century technology. One of our philosophy instructors, a Jesuit professor in his 70s, engages his students in provocative philosophical discussions on the Internet. He has configured the software so that students post their arguments anonymously; only he knows who said what. Students know only that a classmate has offered an opinion.

When students come to class, the professor opens his laptop and displays the most compelling comments from the out-of-class discussions on the big screen at the front of the classroom. Intellectual fireworks ensue. After decades of mild frustration trying to draw reticent students out of their shells to talk about great ideas, he is absolutely delighted by how the "safety" of the Internet has increased the quality of discourse in his class. The course has come alive in a way it never had until e-learning became a part of it.

This is just one example of how 141-year-old Boston College (BC), one of the oldest Jesuit Catholic universities in the United States, is incorporating e-learning into its time-honored academic tradition. Indeed, the older and more venerable an institution--US News & World Report ranks BC number 37th among national universities--the more that's at stake when it introduces a dramatic and potentially revolutionary tool like the Internet into the educational program. Reputation and quality are the first concerns.

Important Decisions

E-learning has affected everyone at our 15,000-plus-student university, regardless of age, role, experience or academic discipline. And mostly in a positive way. But success hasn't come without obstacles, challenges and tough decisions.

One of our most critical decisions was assessing how e-learning would affect our hard-earned reputation, steeped in centuries of classical academic tradition. Although we plan to scale our e-learning, we had no need to use it as a flagship marketing tool for admissions. Our curriculum sells itself. We evaluate e-learning only in the context of its power to improve education. As a matter of fact, we don't even make any distinction between online education and traditional education. Education per se is the only thing that matters.

Consistent with this position, we elected not to mandate e-learning for every course. Instead, we have let e-learning develop organically, driven by students, faculty and the academic environment. Several education-related factors are fueling our organic e-learning adoption. E-book publishers are flooding academia with digitized online content for a wide range of courses. BC has a very robust digital library, and students thrive on that digitized content. With a few clicks, BC faculty members can incorporate into a Web-enhanced course any of our vast library resources, including books, BC publications, periodicals, scholarly publications, e-journals, articles, manuscripts, electronic databases, and other libraries' catalogs, including that of Harvard University.

We've networked all of our classrooms with state-of-the-art infrastructure. Faculty members are supplied with powerful desktops and laptops. Our students tend to be technologically savvy and often come to us with e-learning experience gained in high school. Not only are they comfortable with the technology, they virtually grew up online. Their demand for online course components has propelled our e-learning adoption.

Early on, we determined we needed well-defined "checks and balances" to ensure e-learning was properly incorporated into our campus environment. We have adopted a multiple committee structure that serves us very well. Our University Council on Teaching comprises respected faculty members who set strategy on how e-learning will play out on campus. We have an e-learning Action Group, a collaboration of college reference librarians and academic initiatives. My group, Academic Technology Services, promotes e-learning on campus and assists in training and technical support.

One of our first challenges was selecting technology for managing the online components of our courses. The number of alternatives can be mind-boggling. Ease of use, features, support, services, technology architecture, and the company behind the brand are all critical considerations. We selected WebCT Campus Edition in 2000 as our course management system, chosen by our faculty for its flexibility. In 2005, we will upgrade to WebCT's Vista product. These systems let professors offer content, quizzes, chat, clips, newsgroups, polls, whiteboards, Web links, database access, and library resources and more with minimal training.

Strong Results

With these key governance and infrastructure decisions made, we've had strong results with e-learning across a wide range of disciplines.

For example, e-learning has made a tremendous impact on our required freshman writing program, one of the most important courses a BC student will ever take. The First Year Writing Seminar is a 15-student course designed to engage students with writing as a source of learning and a form of communication. The semester-long seminar involves extensive writing, rewriting, discussion, feedback, mentoring, and developing a portfolio of personal and academic writing. In addition to regular conferences, the class meets two hours per week to discuss the writing process, the relationship between reading and writing, conventional and innovative ways of doing research, and evolving drafts of class members. With as many as 75 instructors teaching the 120 sections, the Freshman Writing Seminar experience can vary widely from class to class. To enforce baseline consistency, we've used e-learning to standardize the course with common content and resources across every section, ensuring a high-quality educational experience for every student.

We're also using e-learning technology to forge links with the Boston metropolitan area and deliver services to the community in which we live and learn. For example, The School of Nursing is using the Internet to bring young inner-city women online in a pioneering multigenerational program to combat HIV/AIDS. The women engage in chats with carefully selected role models, take part in ongoing newsgroup discussions, watch movie clips and have a lot of frank discussion on sensitive topics. This program is poised to secure a large grant that could fuel its dramatic expansion.

In other cases, the Internet and e-learning simply save time and frustration, creating more time to expose students to more content. For example, one faculty member posts German classical music online. For years, he had taken great pains to assemble a CD-ROM of various selections and asked students to check it out of the library for homework. Students often showed up at the library only to learn that one of their classmates had already checked out the CD, forcing them to make multiple trips and sometimes miss out on the disc entirely. Now, at any time of the day or night, students simply go online and visit the home page for the music course. Students point, click, and stream the music into their dorms, homes--wherever they carry their laptop. Students love the convenience, and so does the professor.

Our e-learning technology even enhances extracurricular experiences. First-year MBA candidates at our Carroll School of Management have a special intranet where they can find fellowships, social activities, discussions, and a "community calendar." Although it sounds like a trivial thing, this digital orientation/bulletin board in one is a campus lifeline for the many students with full-time job and family responsibilities.

Some Suggestions

Every year, we highlight these and other e-learning best practices at BC through multiple e-learning programs and symposia. These spark many fresh, creative ideas that directly improve the student experience the next semester. As always, we assess every new e-learning initiative according to how it helps the student. And by that yardstick, we're proud of what we've accomplished so far. We've learned some hard lessons, too, which we'll sum up in these suggestions for any other institution wishing to learn from our experiences.

  • Take it slow. We're in no rush to be the world's largest online university. While we want to offer all the advantages of a reliable, capable technology infrastructure, our first concern is preserving the quality of a Boston College education--not technology's undeniable power to make an institution appear on the "cutting edge."
  • Get consensus. It's smart both practically and politically to ensure all stakeholders in the education process are well represented in every major decision affecting e-learning ranging from the selection of technology to the adoption of policies and processes for using it. Consensus leads to cooperation.
  • Novelty isn't everything. Some of e-learning's most dramatic benefits arise out of applications that seem mundane: online office hours that give the student greater access to faculty, music clips that save wasted trips to the library, newsgroups to keep lively discussion going between classes.
  • Share what you learn. We celebrate our successes and analyze our failures by discussing them at every opportunity, including weekly information sessions, lunch-and-learn programs and more intensive workshops.

In the future, we'll strive for even tighter integration of our e-learning systems with our campus library. We'll also strive for steady, incremental and organic e-learning growth across departments and curricula. And with good luck, we'll enhance our education quality for centuries to come.


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